Prolongation of the war in Europe is dangerous. NATO should act pre-emptively – Valeriy Chaly

УКМЦ Валерій Чалий

Does Russia’s armed aggression threaten NATO countries? Why should Europe strive for leadership in the continent’s security issues and why is Ukraine in NATO beneficial for the Alliance?

On the eve of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, we spoke to Valeriy Chaly co-founder and Chair of the UCMC Board, Ambassador of Ukraine to the United States (2015-2019), Foreign Policy Adviser to the President of Ukraine (2014-2015), Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine (2009-2010). 

The conversation focused on the analysis of the development of the geopolitical situation in the context of Russia’s war against Ukraine, the need to consolidate Ukraine’s partners in countering Russian aggression, the dependence of the development of new armed conflicts in the world on the outcomes and timeframes of the war in Europe, as well as on Ukraine’s NATO membership.

The article offers the main points of what Valeriy Chaly said during the conversation.

NATO must be ready for a direct confrontation with Russia

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine was actually preceded by an ultimatum sent by Russia in written form on December 15, 2021. It was not addressed to Ukraine, but rather to NATO and the USA.

The allies have not provided an adequate response to this ultimatum yet. Russian officials have repeatedly emphasized that they are in conflict with the West and NATO countries.

It is fundamentally wrong to expect that Ukraine will single-handedly defeat the Russian armed forces – the army, the navy, and aviation (including strategic), so that other European countries will be able to protect themselves at the expense of the heroic actions of the Ukrainian people.

This is an illusion. NATO countries will not avoid a direct clash with Russia. In fact, there have already been such clashes – Russian missile attacks on the Alliance territory, attacks by Shakhed drones of Iranian origin. There were also air clashes involving Russian aircraft, both over land and over the Black Sea. These Russian actions have not resulted in NATO’s active response so far.

When will it happen? There is no doubt that the Russian leadership and Putin personally took a one-way ticket. With certain weakening and unwillingness of partner countries to strengthen Ukraine, if the war turns into a positional one, they will find the possibility to, at least, provoke a NATO country.

It was further confirmed by a recent interview of the Russian leader for one of the American media outlets. And there he said a new thing that he had not said before. In fact, he made claims in historical terms on the territory of NATO countries, in particular, Poland. He said that Poland had provoked Hitler into World War II. Although this absolutely contradicts the conclusions of the Nuremberg trial and historical facts. But the mention of the territories that went to Poland is not just another historical angle. It is a very clear hint that the Russians have plans to attack NATO countries.

We will see what country it will be, whether it will really be towards Poland through the Suwalki corridor, or whether it will be a provocation on the border with Estonia, as previously mentioned in Russian operational plans. But I am convinced that it is unavoidable, and that NATO or EU countries do not have 3-5 years to prepare for it. That is why Ukraine must be strengthened now in order to probably avoid such a scenario.

NATO countries do not have 3-5 years to prepare

Russia will use the moment while NATO countries and Europe are not ready for a confrontation yet, even if Europe has already woken up. Plans to deploy troops are for the next 3-5 years, for example, to deploy a Bundeswehr mechanized brigade in Lithuania by 2027. Putin and the Russian leadership will have the opportunity to seize the moment.

It would be a big mistake to conclude that the expansion of Russian aggression will be postponed while the large-scale war in Ukraine is ongoing. On the contrary, if the defense continues without enough additional weapons for Ukraine, without longer-range missiles, aircraft, without turning the war into a maneuver one, if it is a positional war like World War I, Russia will have the opportunity to seize the moment in the near future.

We can talk with a high degree of probability about Russia’s likely attack already at the beginning of next year, at a time when there will be a transition period in the United States, from election day to the US presidential inauguration.

Europe needs new leadership in security issues

Recently, there have been more hope for European leadership. The UK demonstrated the best understanding of aggressor’s goals and plan, and once the large-scale invasion started, together with the USA  took the most active steps in supplying Ukraine with weapons. In Germany, as we can see, there have been tremendous changes in the attitude to security and Russian aggression. It shows that the mental consequences of World War II have already been overcome. Therefore, we will see a new quality of Germany, as well as a new quality of France. And other European countries should follow them.

The European Union was absolutely illogical in compromising its intentions to compete equally with China and the USA in the future world. The European Union has all the economic capabilities, and it will have military and technical capabilities in the future, in order to compete on an equal footing. If further strengthened by Ukraine, it will be a market of about 500 million consumers, together with Ukraine and Moldova. There are two nuclear states in Europe – NATO members. With proper internal development, it will be a force that can break the expected pattern of bipolar confrontation between the US and China.

NATO will only benefit from Ukraine’s full membership in the Alliance

Until 2014, most people in Europe believed that Ukraine should be a buffer zone. Now Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has stated that Ukraine should remain a buffer zone. This thesis sounds cynical today, because the buffer zone means that Ukrainian children and women must die, while other European countries are protected. 

Ukraine has already served as a buffer zone, because it has not been a NATO member. However, this has not stopped the war. Ukraine’s presence in the buffer gray zone has not helped preserve security in Europe. On the contrary, it served as an additional argument for Russia to enter this gray zone, here, in their opinion, they were unlikely to met any collective resistance, except for the self-defense of Ukraine.

Is Ukraine willing to serve as a buffer zone in the future? The answer is obvious. Ukraine will find ways to escape this trap, because this trap has already led us to war. We held a very serious internal discussion in Ukraine. We compromised with Russia in the 1990s. We allowed Russia to deploy its base on our territory, actually against our security interests. Only in order to demonstrate a compromising position. Instead, we got not only Russia’s war against Ukraine, but even intentions to completely destroy us as a country and a people. 

This scheme has not worked. Therefore, Ukraine should be in NATO – inside rather than outside of the common security and defense space.

Choosing the right time for Ukraine to join NATO would be very important to end this war. If the Alliance dared to make a political decision now, it would be a very serious signal to the Kremlin about the irreversibility of historical processes. Perhaps without extending the 5th article of the Washington Treaty to Ukraine already today, but, let’s say, with the invitation for Ukraine to join the political structures of the Alliance, and the military structures after the war. The formula can be found. This decision should apply to all of Ukraine, the entire territory, within the internationally recognized borders.

Ukraine with its internal motivation to defend not only its sovereignty, but also Europe is a huge asset. Will each EU country put up more than a million people who are ready to give their lives for the safety of Europe? It will be easy to do so, let’s say, in France or Germany. Perhaps a better answer would be found in Poland or other states neighboring Ukraine. They, as well as all the countries that, together with Ukraine, are on the first line of defense of NATO’s eastern flank feel this danger more. But these are smaller countries, they will not be able to provide this defense in terms of operational depth.

The situation will change. Finland has joined NATO, Sweden will obviously join it as well. This is a serious response to Putin, who threatened them with catastrophic consequences. It is logical to make a historic decision so that Ukraine will be inside rather than outside of the system of collective defense.

If anyone has doubts, let them remember Henry Kissinger’s wise words  that “it is better to have Ukraine in NATO.” He had his arguments. From his point of view, a strong Ukraine outside NATO may not be controlled, and Ukraine within the Alliance will be more oriented towards common goals. 

Finally, one more point, which is rarely discussed in public. Unfortunately, the proven fact is that wherever the invading army and occupying forces pass through, some people still participate in joint actions with the invader. And such intentions and thoughts also remain in Russia. When they went to Ukraine and expected to be welcomed with flowers, they really wanted the Ukrainians to jointhem and go to Europe together with this multi-million army. And only the fact that Ukrainians have taken a different position has made these plans impossible for now.

Prolongation of the war in Europe is worse than solving the problem here and now

The world is just at the beginning of a period of turbulence and ufolding of large local or even regional military conflicts. The war entered Europe unnaturally, precisely because of the criminal acts and mistakes of Putin and the Russian ruling elite. It is rather difficult to predict how and where armed conflicts will unfold. But there is a high probability of new outbursts of wars either in the Indo-Pacific region, or in the Middle East, or in Africa. The sooner the war in Europe ends and the aggressor is held accountable, the better chances for avoiding regional conflicts in other parts of the world.

Decisive immediate joint actions are more effective than prolongation of the response to threats. Until there is political leadership able to meet the modern challenges, particularly in the key countries, we will be in this period of wars, perhaps for decades. If there is a consolidated quick and powerful response, this period of geopolitical turbulence can be significantly shortened.

Peace is not something guaranteed. Unpunished aggression leads to new attempts. Only collective efforts and force response will give results. Ukrainians are at the forefront of this struggle and are paying the highest price for restoring peace – with the lives of their best soldiers, men and women. Democratic peace-loving forces in the world must consolidate as much as possible, demonstrate their  stopping power to oppose aggressors or, even, act ahead of their criminal intentions! Act decisively and powerfully! Act here and now!